Action Inc. must deal with several neighborhood concerns before the city OKs any more beds at the agency's residential shelter on Main Street.
After a 90-minute hearing Thursday night, the city's Zoning Board of Appeals continued the matter until next Friday, with members asking the nonprofit human services organization to come back with a plan to address issues raised by the shelter's neighbors.
Neighbors and board members told Action to:
Find a means of decreasing police and ambulance calls to shelter.
Find a better system for admittance than the line people now form on Main Street at 4 p.m. in hopes of being granted shelter for the night.
Take preventive or cleanup steps regarding trash and bottles that Action guests allegedly toss into neighbors' yards.
Those concerns come as Action applies to increase the number of licensed beds allowed at the shelter from 26 to 34. Action officials have emphasized the increase will not mean any addition to the building's footprint; they have said the shelter has regularly housed 30 or even 34 visitors some nights in recent months, due to a documented increase in the community's need.
Heads of local nonprofit organizations, members of the Cape Ann clergy and a few city officials all urged the board to sign off on the additional beds, citing public health and safety concerns.
But while the crowd of officials spoke for it, no neighbors did. Several neighbors took the stand to oppose adding any beds. They said Action had to address the problems its guests were generating before it housed any more of them.
George Allen, who said he lives and works next to the shelter, told the board he's seen fighting in the line, he's had windows broken, cleaned bottles off his property, found bullets and powder in the bushes, and been roughed up on the street.
People who sleep in the shelter need help, he said, but Action shouldn't cram any more of them into the building. Allen said the nonprofit needs to find another place, rather than go 14 beds above the original 20-person limit on Main Street.
"If we're going to do this, let's do it right," said Allen.
He said the officials supporting the additional beds don't live next to the shelter, and wouldn't want to.
Helen Korpin said she's fought with Action since it built the shelter in 1988. She's concerned that many of the guests aren't people who are really struggling, but young men thrown out by their parents for drug and alcohol problems.
She said she's not for or against the expansion, but wants Action to follow its own rules if the board allows more beds.
"All I want them to do is when they say certain rules will be met, hopefully they mean it," said Korpin.
Catherine Schlichte, an attorney who represented Action Inc. at the hearing Thursday night, recalled that, in 1988, the city permitted Action for 20 to 30 beds. The shelter has operated with 20 beds in the summer and 26 beds in the winter until the last few months, she said.
The number of beds runs higher in the cold of winter and usually drops in the summer, she said, but this year, the numbers have remained high.
In fact, said Action's executive director, Tim Riley, they grew — and they grew to the most that the shelter has ever seen.
Beds, Riley said, are full in shelters across the state. And with a logjam in affordable housing and a slowdown in approvals of Section 8 vouchers, it's getting harder for the shelter to move residents out. That's why the nonprofit went before the board, he said.
Zoning Board members, on a motion from Francis Wright, said they would consider expanding the shelter if Action dealt with the neighbors' concerns.
Ralph Johnson, Action's shelter director, said the shelter started case management programs aimed at getting occupants out of the shelter and into work and housing of their own.
The shelter, he said, has been a "wet" shelter from the get-go. Action officials don't condone drinking in the building, he said, but will take someone in who's intoxicated, provided they don't come back that way again.
Each resident in the shelter, he said, has a case management plan with which they're required to comply if they want to stay there. But it's the nonprofit's goal and job to move people back into society's mainstream, said Johnson.
A number of questions centered on the police responses to the shelter, including another medical call that came Friday night.
Zoning Board member Leonard Gyllenhaul went through a stack of Gloucester police reports indicating that a John Jerome, who stayed at the shelter, had been either arrested or transported for medical reasons.
The shelter's guests, he noted, account for a number of arrests and medical aid transports in the city. Gyllenhaul said he didn't see how providing the shelter with more beds would be better for Gloucester, given the frequent arrests involving occupants or former occupants.
Johnson said the shelter does deny services to people who cause those kinds of problems, and does what it can to keep its residents from causing trouble. But not all people in the city with "no known address" attached to their names are shelter residents, said Johnson.
"It aught to be more of your work," said Gyllenhaul.
Adding beds, attorney Schlichte said, won't increase the number of homeless in town. They will barely meet the need of a growing number of local homeless, she said.
And those numbers of homeless people, said Gloucester police Lt. Joe Aiello, will end up on the street or the steps of the courthouse.
"No one knows the need more than we do," he said.
The people who cause many of the problems, said Aiello, are the people who need those services the most.
He said it's the Police Department's responsibility to keep people safe who can't do so themselves. The Police Department, he said, supports the additional beds.
"We have a duty to provide for these people," he said.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.